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Norman Mailer: Letters to Jack Abbott

The conditions of your existence have been so incredibly harsh that I never dream of sitting in judgment upon you. Your boast that other men could never endure what you’ve endured is doubtless correct. I think it is. I’m not at all sure I could have gone through half of what you have. Nonetheless, it may have made it impossible for us to truly talk and understand one another, because I will never enter a dialogue with a man whose mind I cannot change in some degree. I enter that dialogue with the notion that he will change my mind even as I will alter his, and that is why we are engaging in the discussion. With you I do not get that feeling…. I can’t argue with a man whose mind is made of steel. Steel is not the proper material of mind, as far as I’m concerned. For example, I find you supporting the Soviet Union versus Israel. Now I’m no automatic Zionist with a hardon, and I don’t think Israel is the answer to every problem on earth. I don’t have the knee-jerk reflex of saying “Is this good for Israel?” Far from it. But I do think that in simple humanitarian terms quite apart from class relations, that there are a few hundred thousand Jews who are miserable in Russia and would be less miserable in Israel, then let them go there. Yet you support a country like the Soviet Union which you call “social imperial,” if I remember your phrase correctly.

In any case, that country which is a perversion of socialism you defend against another country, Israel, which is another perversion of socialism or social democracy. And what you’re leaving out of account is the horror behind it all. Just as I don’t know what it is to be a convict, you the fuck don’t know what it is to be a Jew.12 You don’t know what it is to have six million of your people killed when there are only twelve million of them on earth. You don’t know the profound and fundamental stunting of existence that got into the blood cells of every Jew after Hitler had done his work. It’s easy for you, it’s contemptuous, you say “There’s Israel doing the lackey’s work for the U.S. against the bold, brave Arab nations”—who, as you know full well, have the most hideous prisons in the history of civilized existence. Yet you have your knee-jerk reflexes, and one of them is up the Arabs down the Israelis.

And I know that we can’t talk about those things, or a thousand others. I know that I can’t tell you that I started as a Marxist and am now a religious existentialist, and have beliefs that are parallel to yours, because I think we might even share a great role in the thoughts if the world does not get better, dramatically better, and probably better through the agency of profound and visionary ideas, which involve a vast change in the very fundament of things, or the world is going to get profoundly worse. But that we can discuss what some of those ideas might be I doubt. You’ve a Marxist-Leninist vision, and I know enough to know those ideas die the hardest of all. This last remark of mine will, of course, convince you of the strength and correctness of your thought, but I confess to you that I prefer ideas which are fragile and delicate, and have to survive each day and be recreated each day under the most difficult of conditions.

In any case, you’ve been generous enough to give me unstintingly of your thought and I’ve now given you an indication of mine.

Your pen pal,

To Jack Abbott

April 26, 1984

Dear Jack,

Having gotten back from Russia, I finally had a chance to sit down and read your letters of March 30 and April 13, and this will be in answer to it. Incidentally, on Russia, I know you’re eager to hear what I thought but I’m trying to write a piece for Parade Magazine, which will say what I thought. So for now, let me just indicate that in my impression, which is admittedly superficial, since I was only there for two weeks and traveled around as a solitary tourist, the main feeling I had is that it’s a tough and abrasive country to live in, and very difficult in the number of frustrations one encounters in trying to do simple things, but it’s really not a police state so much as a terribly oppressed and oppressive society and as a result the people are very moving.

Most of them, especially the older ones, look like old club fighters who took tremendous punches in their ring careers and then retired and got hit three times by a truck. I got to tell you, I just don’t see it as a warlike country. It’s more a place that’s just fucked up and as you [know] so well, full of despair. Still, when you compare what it’s gone through next to what we have here, you feel a little uneasy as an American at how spoiled we are. In which “we” I do not include you—I don’t think of you as having been spoiled by life (that’s a joke, son).

Anyway, I want to talk about your letters because there’s a lot in them, but I can’t answer everything you bring up (as usual I can’t), still there are a lot of things I want to tell you about that’ll be of interest to you. One of them is you asked about the Jews in Russia, and you know, one of the funny aspects of Russian history is that back around 950 or 980 AD, the king, I think his name was Vladimir,13 of Russia who was then in Kiev, decided he no longer wanted [it] to be a pagan nation and wanted another religion, and he sent four messengers—to Rome, to Constantinople, to somewhere in the Arab world to study Islam, and to the Jews who at that time lived in Kazar, or lived around southern Russia—I’m not sure precisely where but somewhere around the Crimea and the Caucasus, and were called Khazars, indeed, the Jews had had quite a civilization there.

After these four religious were duly considered by Vladimir, he chose the Greek Orthodox from Constantinople because his messengers from there told him that the cathedral of Saint Sophia was as beautiful as heaven, and that appealed to him immensely. But if he’d chosen the Jewish religion, God know[s] what the history of the world would have been today. Anyway, that’s a historical fillip to whet your attention.

If you’re interested in reading more about the Khazars, you can find a good deal about them in [Heinrich] Graetz’s 6-volume History of the Jews [1891], I would guess somewhere in the third volume, but it could be toward the end of the second. I just don’t believe it would be as far along as the fourth.

You asked about getting a cassette player and tapes that would teach you to speak Hebrew. If no one has provided you with a cassette yet, tell me how to send one to you and how to submit it officially through the authorities so you can get it. I’d be happy to do that and I’d be happy to send you tapes as well. The only thing is, Jack, that you’re going to get tapes of Modern Hebrew, and while it will give you a knowledge of how to speak Hebrew, I’m not certain how classical it is.

There have been great changes in Hebrew, in modern Hebrew, in order to make it a useful speaking language that can deal with technology, etc. So I don’t know how much of the old accent is kept, although my guess is it would stay the same to some extent, or it’s doubtless softer and more fluid and faster. Ancient Hebrew, classical Hebrew, as you’ve guessed, has a wonderful sound and is indeed a very masculine language full of harsh, strong powerful tones, sounds of rocks striking against one another, rocks breaking. It’s not a fluid language so much as architectural, sculpted. Sounds take shapes when you speak it, wind rolls in your throat.

I exaggerate to make the point because of course it doesn’t sound quite that strong. But I wonder if you were able to speak to that rabbi to get any idea of Hebrew? It’s possible he was a poor timid soul and petrified of talking to you. I was moved when I read the scene. You were waiting for so long to talk to a rabbi and then when it finally happened, it’s through a steel door and the guards interrupting it on top of it, the guy himself was probably in awe of your reputation. What a comedy for anyone but yourself. It’s tough gruel, Jack, I know it. Anyway, let me know about the cassettes. I’d be happy to help out.

You ask about Joseph and Moses in Egypt and I tell you that there are many many arguments over this, which dynasty it occurred in and so forth. Some believe it was Thutmose III, others Ramses II, a few say the Hyksos. Others even nominate Queen Hatshepsut. Pay your money and take your choice. As you may remember, I like picking the reign of Ramses II but making very little of it, Moses being seen by the Egyptians as some kind of whacko Hebrew captain, who defected.

As for the Talmud and the Zohar, I was impressed with your grasp of it. It could be said that the Talmud has to do with earth and the Zohar with heaven. Another way of describing the two is that the Talmud has many variations, and indeed is a book that has as many colors as Joseph’s coat, is nonetheless ultimately a work of law and commentaries on the law whereas the Zohar is an attempt to penetrate the mysteries of existence. The Kabala and the Zohar are very closely related, for example, and the Kabala, of course, will drive you out of your mind when you finally get to it. I predict that you will find it extraordinarily beautiful. And it may occupy your mind for the longest time, but take your time getting to it, because the Kabala can take you over.

At any rate, the Talmud is something you should read. I don’t think you have to try to take in all of it. If you can get hold of one volume, and I have a set at home of 26 volumes in what’s called the Soncino edition,14 published in London. If it’s possible to buy the Talmud in individual books rather than in an entire set, which is prohibitively expensive and probably would cost close to a thousand bucks by now, I’d be happy to send you one volume. As I say, that’s all you need, because you can spend 2 years reading one volume.

What it consists of, essentially, is the attempt of the Jews in the few centuries before and after the birth of Christ to deal with the problems of ritual and what to do when things went wrong. If a man brought in a goat to be sacrificed and before the goat got to the altar, the goat defecated, the beast was impure as given by law. But what was then to be done with the beast? Was it to be killed? If it was killed, was the meat to be given back to the man who brought it in? What prayers had to be said to remove the defecation from the temple properly so that no evil presence was left? You can see that that one simple act of the animal thinking he was going to be sacrificed and panicking could be enough to open 20 or 30 or 40 questions that were of burning importance for those people because their temple and their altar could certainly not be polluted. On the other hand, the poor man had rights also. They didn’t want him to lose the fruits of his labor.

It’s really sort of beautiful the way these minds that developed only in the culture of the Talmud nonetheless pushed their intellectual conclusions further and further and split more and more hairs. There are a great many people, myself included, who believe that one of the reasons that so many Jews make lawyers, and very good ones, is the heritage in our blood from the Talmud, and from the close reasoning of the arguments.

Now while there’s a good deal of poetry in the Talmud as well and parables and all sorts of stuff, the true metaphysics and mysticism of the Jews is to be found in the Zohar. It’s really much more advanced than the Talmud and before you go too far into the Zohar, I think you’d be happier to catch a hold of one of the books from the Talmud to have some idea of what the Zohar is built upon, because while the authorship of the Zohar is much in dispute and there are great arguments about whether it was an oral tradition or was composed by certain Jewish rabbis in Spain around 1000 A.D., give or take a couple of hundred years either way, the key factor that’s obvious by the internal evidence is that the Zohar depends for its existence upon people who were conversant in the Talmud. One writer who could shed a lot of light for you on these matters is an author who’s a famed Hebrew scholar named Gershom Scholem.15

Finally, Jack, I want to conclude with the thing that excites me most of all, and that’s how you’re talking of trying to write what I gather to be a novel about ancient times, particularly about the period when the Jews were in Judea, and that I think would be exciting as hell. It would really stretch your mind and even give a focus to all your intellectual explorations. So if you’re in the mood to go on a venture like that, well, Jack, my hat’s off to you and I’ll be ready to help if you need me. In the interim, let me know what you need, whether money is of any use to you, and keep as well as you can, friend.


To Helen Morris,
The Reader’s Catalogue16
627 Commercial Street,
Provincetown, MA

January 16, 1988

Dear Helen Morris,

Appended is my list. With the exception of Huckleberry Finn, which I reread recently, the other nine books were devoured in my freshman year at Harvard, and gave me the desire, which has never gone completely away, to be a writer, an American writer. They’re all selections from the mainstream of American novels, not a surprise on the list, which separates me, I suspect, from my colleagues. But it’s an honest list, even if it doesn’t bring a deserving writer out of obscurity. Freshman year at Harvard is luminous because of these books.

Yours sincerely,
Norman Mailer

Ten Favorite American Novels
U.S.A. John Dos Passos
Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain
Studs Lonigan James T. Farrell
Look Homeward, Angel Thomas Wolfe
The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck
The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Sun Also Rises Ernest Hemingway
Appointment in Samarra John O’Hara
The Postman Always Rings Twice James M. Cain
Moby-Dick Herman Melville

  1. 12

    Abbott later converted to Judaism.

  2. 13

    Mailer’s account is part of the story of the conversion of Russia to Christianity by Vladimir the Great in 988 CE. The Primary Chronicle, a history of ancient Russia, recounts this event.

  3. 14

    Under the editorship of Rabbi Dr. Isidore Epstein, Soncino Press of London published The Babylonian Talmud in thirty-five volumes between 1935 and 1952.

  4. 15

    Perhaps the most important scholar of Jewish mysticism, Scholem (1897–1982) wrote widely on the topic, including Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941).

  5. 16

    A publishing venture organized by Jason Epstein, Robert Silvers, and Epstein’s ex-wife Barbara Epstein (1928–2006), founders of The New York Review, The Reader’s Catalog was an annotated list of the approximately 75,000 titles one might find in the ideal bookstore. Mailer was asked for ten candidates for inclusion.

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